The LDS Church will seek a National Historic Landmark designation for the property where 120 men, women and children were massacred in 1857 by local LDS leaders and members in the Cedar City area.
Elder Marlin K. Jensen, historian for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, told leaders of the victims' descendants Friday in Carrollton, Ark., that the church will cooperate with them in seeking that designation for property it owns in southwest Utah where the Mountain Meadows Massacre occurred.
"It's a dream come true," said Harley Fancher, board member of the Mountain Meadows Monument Foundation, who was hosting a dinner Friday in Arkansas for all those involved in the meeting.
"We're all pretty happy. Everyone's come together, and we've gotten on the same page," added Phil Bolinger, president of the foundation. He said Elder Jensen and other LDS representatives at the meeting are "very passionate about this. We believe in their hearts they want to do what makes the victims' families happy, and that makes it easier.
"The church could send lots of different people to deal with us, but I think these four that came have also helped make a difference personally. They have feelings in their hearts to make this thing right," Bolinger said. "There's no way of ever fixing it, but they obviously want to try to give as much as they can toward righting this wrong."
Elder Jensen the first LDS general authority to meet with the descendants in Arkansas told the Deseret Morning News he found himself "quite emotional today. When you put a human face on this and see really good people here, and you realize if this had happened to your ancestors, maybe through the years we could have done better than we have, for sure.
"But we're doing it now. We can't change the past, but we can live in the present and plan for a better future. I think that's what we did today."
Late last year, leaders of the Mountain Meadows Monument Foundation, along with the Mountain Meadows Association and the Mountain Meadows Massacre Descendants, unanimously asked for the church's help in securing landmark status for the site. Previously, they were divided about how they wanted to see the site preserved.
The designation would bring "a national focus and establishes that site as one that has national significance," Elder Jensen said. "It helps ensure it will always be held as a sacred spot, and people there will be properly remembered and memorialized."
Church representatives at the meeting included Richard Turley, Steve Olsen and Barbara Brown of the church's Family and Church History Department. They asked for input from the groups on proposed plans to create a second memorial with interpretive markers at the Burgess upper grave site, an area recently acquired by the church where remains of some of the victims are believed to be buried.
The church recently purchased 600 additional acres of land in the area to halt development of a residential subdivision.
"We talked to them about what would be appropriate to memorialize those good people whose lives were taken," Elder Jensen said. "With their input, we will put together conceptual plans and continue to collaborate with them until we reach the point where we decide what to do."
While Mountain Meadows is already listed on the National Register of Historic Places, requirements for a landmark designation involve a process of documenting the historic significance of the site, a public comment period, a review by the National Park Service and a government-appointed board of experts, and a final decision by the secretary of the interior.
The three descendant organizations long have discussed stewardship of the site, but their approach to dealing with church leaders and their ultimate goals often have been different. Consensus developed among them late last year in their request for National Historic Landmark status of the property, and all three organizations sent the same letter to the church requesting its cooperation in December.
The groups held a three-day commemorative anniversary at the site in September, marking the 150th anniversary of the massacre. During one of those services, Bolinger offered Elder Henry B. Eyring, then a member of the church's Quorum of the Twelve, a packet of documents, including 850 petitions, 400 letters from descendants of massacre victims and 56 from Arkansas politicians, seeking support for the landmark status.
"We did the legwork with all the letters," Bolinger said. "We're confident with what was told to us today that this is going to happen," because the church has "the size and the power to make it happen. There's a lot of political channels to go through, but they have the means to do it."
He said representatives from Arkansas will be in Utah periodically to help in decision-making for the upper grave site.
The massacre occurred Sept. 11, 1857, when LDS leaders directed 50 to 60 local Mormon militiamen, aided by some native people, in the slaughter of 120 people passing through Mountain Meadows on their way to California. Most were from Arkansas and were known as the Baker-Fancher wagon train.
The only survivors were a few small children the attackers believed were too young to tell anyone about the murders. They were parceled out to LDS families in Cedar City for a time and eventually returned to family and friends in Arkansas.
John D. Lee was the only man ever tried and convicted for his role in the murders. He was eventually executed at the massacre site.
The episode has been researched for decades by historians with a variety of perspectives on the events. Public discussion in recent years has become more pointed and vocal with the formation of the descendant groups, which have sought to document and publicize what they say is a chapter in U.S. history too long forgotten.
Meeting with the groups in Arkansas "has been a very good thing," Elder Jensen said. "We should have done it earlier. So much in this is timing. It's hard to say why now it's just the Lord's way of working with all of us."
President Gordon B. Hinckley opened the dialogue in 1999, he said, then descendant groups began talking with the church and each other, and church historians began providing detailed descriptions of events for leaders to consider.